By GRACE GADDY
The ascending voice of a fiddle, accompanied by a lighthearted chorus of dulcimers and banjos, could be heard on Friday overflowing from the top of the hill that overlooks Reagan Park.
At the same time, cars could be seen lining both sides of nearby streets – having just carried a couple hundred musicians from across the country to gather this weekend at the Museum for East Texas Culture.
The hilltop museum is the site of the 13th Annual Palestine Old Time Music and Dulcimer Festival, which kicked off Thursday and lasts through today, during the second weekend of the Dogwood Trails Celebration.
The annual festival draws lovers and makers of “old time music” – a genre of North American folk music – to fill aged halls with fresh sounds through workshops, jamming sessions and nightly concerts.
Margaret Wright of Kennard, who founded the festival with her husband Jerry in 2002, said she was pleased with the turnout and overall energy of the festival this year.
“We’ve had a good turnout so far in spite of the weather,” she said. “We have a building full of people. Right now, we have workshops going on all during the day, and jam sessions and concerts” – which make for a lot of “hooping and hollering and carrying on,” she added.
Wright said the festival brings together “such wonderful musicians” for a weekend of music-making in the prime location of the old museum.
“The museum staff here and people have asked us from time to time, 'What if the festival ever got too big for the museum, numbers-wise?' and we said, 'Well, we’ll just start taking reservations, because we’re not moving out of this building.' This is like a huge part of what the feeling of the whole festival is, being in this old building.
“The acoustics, because of the hardwood floors and the classrooms, are really perfect for singing or playing instruments or both. This is a wonderful treasure that Palestine has, the museum itself.”
Wright said while the festival draws people from across the country, many of the locals unfortunately aren't aware of the annual event.
“A lot of people in Palestine – like so many other things (when people) live close to something – will often not realize what they have in their own backyard,” she said. “There are tons of people in Palestine that still don’t know this has been going on now for 13 years.”
But the ones who do know tend to keep coming back – people like Eunice McLain of Crockett, who leads groups in singing hymns around an old piano in the museum.
“She likes to play this old-style gospel piano,” Wright said. “(She) walked by one day, sat down and started playing, so now this is a regular event in between each of the classes. We purposely leave 30 minutes between classes so (festival participants) have time to come by and sing – 'Singing with Eunice.'”
Two festival participants this year, John and Karen Keane, made the trip from Shreveport to take part in the old time music event for a second year.
“It’s a great festival, old time music, lots of workshops and stuff – the jams are just amazing,” Karen said. “My husband and I, we both teach elementary music in Shreveport... and we’ve had a good time so far. We have a lot of fun and learn a lot of new things.”
The two have been playing the dulcimer for “about three years now,” she added.
As she said it, another couple approached the Keanes to strike up a conversation about the make and model of their instruments. Apparently, these sorts of conversations take place throughout the weekend, as well as group jamming sessions during the day and late into the night.
John proceeds to describe a dulcimer of “Zebra Wood” – which comes from Africa – with Sugar Maple and ebony inlay.
Showing some personality, Karen's dulcimer is decorated with little black cats reminiscent of a favorite pet, while John's is covered with footprints and a figure representing a famous dulcimer player.
Not far from the couple stand the Rosin Sisters, also here for the second year.
The Atlanta-based trio includes fiddlers Barbara Panter, Ann Whitley and Jan Smith, who came together in 2006 to explore their love of Southern Appalachian roots music. The trio travels the country playing at festivals and teaching workshops.
And that's how they met Wright, who happened to be teaching at the Blue Ridge Old Time Music Week in North Carolina last year. Wright invited them to headline at her local Texas gathering, and the group obliged.
In addition to playing the fiddle, singing and harmonizing, Panter and Whitley play guitar and Smith plays the banjo.
“We like the old stuff that sort of predates bluegrass,” Whitley said. “We like the old-timey stuff.”
The Rosin Sisters, among others, will perform today at the festival, which features the following schedule: 9 to 10:15 a.m., workshops and jams; 10:45 a.m. to noon, workshops and jams; noon to 1:15 p.m., break for lunch; 1:30 to 2:30 p.m., day concerts; 2:45 to 4 p.m., workshops and jams; 4 to 6:45 p.m., free time and dinner; 6:45 to 10:05 p.m., evening concerts; 10:05 until, jamming.
Single-day cost is $35 for everything (two concerts, workshops and jamming) or single-day without workshops, $25 (includes two concerts and jamming). For the public (those not participating in the workshops and other events), evening concert tickets are $15 per person or $45 for the family. Day concert tickets are $10 each.
The museum is located at 400 Micheaux St. in Palestine, behind Reagan Park. For detailed information about the festival, visit www.oldpalmusic.com.